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Friday, September 7, 2012

Please forbear from using "forebearer"

It seems that Wordlady is in a schoolmarmy reproving sort of mood in time for back-to-school, so once again I am writing about a - gasp - language error.

I have recently seen several instances where people used the word "forebearer" when what they meant was "forebear" (an ancestor or predecessor).

Although the famously inclusive Merriam-Webster dictionaries have an entry for "forebearer", and even the famously judgemental American Heritage Dictionary acknowledges that this variant may soon be acceptable (but not yet), most American and British dictionaries and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary consider "forebearer" to be a mistake.

It is not really surprising that people make this mistake, because you would think, looking at the word "forebear", that it comes from "fore" plus "bear", i.e. that these were the people who were born before you. But astonishingly, this is not true. The word was originally "forebeer", nothing to do with ale, but simply a noun "be-er", that is, someone who was before you. It was originally a Scottish term, which explains why the vowel was pronounced more like "bay" than like "be".

Most dictionaries accept "forbear" as a variant spelling of "forebear", but my advice would be to keep "forebear" for the noun and "forbear" for the verb, now very formal, meaning "refrain from doing something", e.g. "She forbore from commenting."

You can see this verb's slide into oblivion on the Google frequency chart below. The apparent post-2000 uptick is due to dictionaries and recent editions of 19th-century books being loaded onto Google Books. It is clear that the verb "forbear" is in its death throes. "Forbearance" has always been healthier than the verb from which it derives, but even it is not what it once was.

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  1. Dear Wordlady,
    Do you want to comment on the death of the verb "to lie" meaning to recline? I think it's in its death throes too, as I hear and see many such statements as "I want to lay down;" "I laid down"; "The answer lays in the future."

    1. I think it is a US (maybe also Canadian) phenomenon to use lay instead of lie for 'recline' in the present tense. In British English, lay is definitely only used for the past tense. It makes incorrect grammar alarm bells go off in my head when people use lay outside of the past tense. As for your example 'I laid down', this should be 'I lay down', unless you 'laid something else down', i.e. not yourself. 'Laid' is past tense, but is different in that it is a passive action, e.g. 'He was laid to rest' (he didn't lie down himself). It is interesting to see how language use in two different cultures develops differently.

    2. I certainly hope that it's not in its death throes, but...I may be wrong. Lie and lay are really two different concepts, if you analyze it. Lay is a transitive verb, in any case. You LAY your burden down, then go LIE down to rest. Sigh...Hope for the best here.

  2. In your teaching about 'forebear,' Katherine, I notice you used 'judgemental' with the 'e' after the 'g.' In the Canadian Oxford Dictionary there is no 'e' after the 'g' after the first listing. Would that not be the preferred spelling?

    1. When we researched the dictionary, that was the more common spelling in Canada, but, as I recall, not by a huge margin. I don't use the word "preferred" as it implies a value judgement (or judgment!). If two spellings are given, users are free to use whichever of the two they like. I have never used "judgment" personally (the word, that is, not the thing!). Just goes to show that the dictionary does not necessarily reflect the practices of its editor, but rather of general usage.

  3. This is just a general one I thought you and your language-loving audience might enjoy via another word loving friend:
    (Pace W S Gilbert)

    Over on the language blogs, there's a continuing debate between extreme prescriptivists (who believe dictionaries are supposed to morally lead us, among other oddities) and just about everyone else. This has been making the rounds, care of The Stroppy Editor, who makes it clear what side of the fence he comes down on:

    I am the very model of an amateur grammarian
    I have a little knowledge and I am authoritarian
    But I make no apology for being doctrinarian
    We must not plummet to the verbal depths of the barbarian

    I’d sooner break my heart in two than sunder an infinitive
    And I’d disown my closest family within a minute if
    They dared to place a preposition at a sentence terminus
    Or sully the Queen’s English with neologisms verminous

    I know that ‘soon’ and not ‘right now’ is the true sense of ‘presently’
    I’m happy to correct you and I do it oh so pleasantly
    I’m not a grammar Nazi; I’m just a linguistic Aryan
    I am the very model of an amateur grammarian

    I’m sure people appreciate my pointing out their grammar gaffes
    And sorting out their sentences and crossing out their paragraphs
    When you crusade for good English, it’s not all doom and gloom you sow
    The secret of success is: it’s not who you know; it’s whom you know

    The standards of our language are declining almost every day
    Down from a peak in 18– or 19– I think – well, anyway
    Pop music, TV, blogs and texting are inflicting ravages
    Upon English and unchecked, this will turn us into savages

    I fear that sloppy language is a sign of immorality
    For breaking rules of grammar is akin to criminality
    So curse those trendy linguists, lexicographers and anyone
    Who shuns the model English of the amateur grammarian

    Conjunctions at the openings of sentences are sickening
    I wish that the decline of the subjunctive were not quickening
    And that more people knew the proper meaning of ‘anticipate’
    Of ‘fulsome’ and ‘enormity’, ‘fortuitous’ and ‘decimate’

    I learned these rules at school and of correctness they’re my surety
    I cling to them for safety despite having reached maturity
    Some say that language changes, but good English is immutable
    And so much common usage now is deeply disreputable

    My pedantry’s demanding but I try not to feel bitter at
    The fact that everyone I meet is borderline illiterate
    When all around are wrong then I am proud to be contrarian
    I am the very model of an amateur grammarian

  4. So the plural of forebear is forebears???

  5. So if someone were to describe themselves as being "a religious forebearer", would this be considered acceptable?

    ... Modi


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.